Workers Vanguard No. 1029
6 September 2013
Soviet Woman Combat Pilot Fought Nazis
In Honor of Nadezhda Popova
(Young Spartacus pages)
World War II Soviet bomber pilot Nadezhda Popova died on July 8 at age 91. In her early 20s, she was Guards Captain of an elite corps of women pilots who were known as the “Night Witches” by Nazis who feared their nightly sorties. We honor Nadezhda Popova for her brave defense of the Soviet Union, homeland of the first successful workers revolution in history. At the cost of 27 million Soviet lives, it was primarily the USSR that smashed Hitler’s war machine and ended the Holocaust.
The daughter of a railway worker, Nadezhda was born on 17 December 1921 and grew up in Donetsk, Ukraine. She was a wild spirit who loved to tango, foxtrot, sing along to jazz and run barefoot in the grass. She became passionate about flying after watching a pilot land near her house. “I thought, ‘Oh my God! He’s just an ordinary man!’ We touched the wings of the plane and his leather jacket,” she recalled decades later. “I had thought that they were some Hercules. And then I thought it would be great if I could fly like a bird.”
Without telling her parents, the 15-year-old Nadezhda joined a flying club. At age 16, she made her first parachute jump and her first solo flight. She was trained at the aviation school in Kherson, Ukraine, and became a flying instructor, training 30 new pilots while still a teenager.
Her life was torn apart by the Nazi invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941. Her home was taken over by German troops, and her brother Leonid was killed at the front. “My mother sobbed, ‘That damn Hitler.’ I saw the German aircraft flying along our roads filled with people who were leaving their homes, firing at them with their machine guns.”
Stalin left the USSR criminally unprepared for the war. During the Moscow show trials of 1936-38 he purged the entire Red Army leadership and executed the best generals. Despite desperate warnings from Communists in Germany and elsewhere, Stalin refused to believe that the Nazis would attack the USSR. The defeats of the Red Army in 1941 forced the bureaucracy to initiate mass campaigns to induct women like Nadezhda into the military. The Stalinists did this in spite of their reactionary glorification of “women’s role” as household drudge, which was of a piece with their anti-internationalist program of building “socialism in one country” and their Great Russian chauvinism. Unlike Stalin & Co., who used nationalist ideology to motivate the defense of the USSR, our Trotskyist defensism was internationalist: the Soviet Union’s collectivized economy was an advance over capitalism and a conquest for all the world’s workers and oppressed.
Nearly one million Soviet women served at the front as soldiers, snipers, machine gunners, field medics, tank drivers and partisan fighters behind enemy lines. Nadezhda Popova, then age 19, was one of the first to join the all-women 588th Night Bomber Regiment. She flew old Polikarpov PO-2 biplanes made of fabric strung over plywood frames with no radio, no guns, no parachutes, and only enough weight allowance for two bombs. Flying under enemy radar at night, Popova would dive full-throttle through enemy searchlights, swerving and dancing, acting as a decoy for another pilot who would glide in with the engine shut off and drop her payload. Then the second pilot would act as a decoy so that Popova could drop her bombs. To the sleepless Germans, the swishing glide of the silent planes of the 588th sounded like a witch’s broomstick passing, and so they called them the Nachthexen (see “The Story of the Night Witches,” Women and Revolution No. 36, Spring 1989).
Nadezhda Popova made 852 sorties during WWII; she made 18 sorties over Poland in a single night in 1944. She also dropped lifesaving food and medicine to Russian marines stranded at Malaya Zemlya in 1942, flying so low she could hear the men’s cheers. Afterward she found 42 bullet holes in her plane. For her skill and bravery, she was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.
WWII German fighter ace Hauptmann Johannes Steinhoff, commander of II./JG52, paid a compliment to Popova and her comrades in a letter on 2 September 1942: “We simply couldn’t grasp that the Soviet airmen that caused us the greatest trouble were in fact women. These women feared nothing. They came night after night in their very slow biplanes, and for some periods, they wouldn’t give us any sleep at all” (quoted in Henry Sakaida, Heroines of the Soviet Union, Osprey, 2003). The Nazi high command reportedly promised to award an Iron Cross to any Luftwaffe pilot who managed to bring down a Night Witch.
In an unusually moving tribute, the bourgeois Economist magazine (20 July) described Popova’s pain endured as friends died defending the Soviet Union:
“The worst, though, was to lose friends. Eight died in a single sortie once when she was lead pilot, as hulking Messerschmitts attacked them in the dazzle of the searchlights. To right and left each tiny PO-2 went down like a falling torch. She never cried as much as when she returned to base and saw the girls’ bunks, still strewn with letters they had never finished writing.”
The pilots and navigators of the 586th, 587th and 588th regiments—as well as the female ground crews who armed and maintained their planes—were crucial to several key battles, such as in the oil-rich Caucasus, Stalingrad and Kursk, that turned the tide of the war against the Nazis (see Bruce Myles, Night Witches: The Untold Story of Soviet Women in Combat, 1981). Many also flew missions around Berlin in the war’s final days. In Berlin, Popova reunited with pilot Semyon Kharlamov, whom she had met and fallen in love with after they both got shot down in July 1942. After the war she married him, had a son and worked as a flying instructor.
Our party has a proud history of defending the Soviet degenerated workers state and fighting against the 1991-92 counterrevolutionary destruction of the USSR, a historic defeat for the working class and oppressed worldwide. We called for proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy and to restore the revolutionary internationalist program of Lenin and Trotsky. Such is our perspective today for China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba—countries where capitalism has been overthrown but where political power is monopolized by parasitic Stalinist bureaucracies.
Working-class women have proven in every revolutionary struggle that they are among the best fighters for the liberation of their class. The fight for women’s liberation means a struggle for international socialist revolution. Among the best cadres in this struggle will be new generations of women, who will draw inspiration from heroic fighters of the past including Nadezhda Popova and the Night Witches of World War II.